We take a look at 8 TV pilots that went straight from the comic pages to the dusty warehouse from 'Raiders'.
The process of making a TV show and getting it on air can be very tricky and take a number of different forms, but the one common element centers around making a pilot episode. These pilot episodes can take many forms, such as a made for TV movie that is considered a backdoor TV pilot (like The Amazing Spider-Man TV movie that unfortunately led to a series), or a sample of the unfinished show to gauge audience and studio reactions.
These pilots can make or break a fledgling TV series, and over the years we have seen a number of shows fail due to low quality pilots, an unkind audience reaction or an executive decision from the studio. What this leaves us with is a series of unaired pilots that may have been great shows, or may have been left behind for a reason. Comic book based properties are no stranger to the pilot process, and this has resulted in a number of unaired TV pilots featuring some of our favorite costumed do-gooders.
What follows is a list of 8 unaired TV pilots, the good, the bad, and the meh. Some of these pilots missed out on the opportunity to tell a great story in a new medium, and some of these pilots just missed.
After the success of WB’s (later the CW) Smallville, the network began looking at other comic characters that could be transferred to the small screen in a similar way, as DC had done with the origin story of Superman. A number of characters were looked at, most notably the caped crusader from Gotham City, but due to several licensing and executive decisions those characters were rejected. What they did finally settle on was a new take on an old hero, and they set about scripting a show based around the King of Atlantis, Aquaman.
The idea for the pilot and series was scripted by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the same team that brought us Smallville. When the WB and UPN networks merged and became the CW, the new network decided to pass on the pilot, which was then released on iTunes. It starred Justin Hartley as Arthur Curry, and featured Lou Diamond Phillips, Ving Rhames, and Adrianne Palicki. The pilot was decent, but failed to impress the new CW enough for the network to take a chance on it. Hartley would of course go on to play Oliver Queen / Green Arrow in Smallville, but his role as Arthur Curry marks a nice little footnote to his time on Smallville.
David E. Kelley’s widely publicized Wonder Woman series saw a lot of ups and downs over the course of filming, not the least of which was the fan reaction to the costume. Adrianne Palicki, who had been cast early in the development of the show was a fine enough choice to play the iconic role, and the premise of the show seemed sound, but the pilot failed to impress not only the initial studio who ordered it (NBC), but any other studio that the pilot was shopped around to. With the largely successful Wonder Woman series from the ‘70s that initially raised the bar, this show was almost doomed to failure.
This pilot never saw air and is hard to find, leaving it largely unseen. The few reviews of the pilot were generally negative, and most of us can assume there is a pretty good reason the show was passed on. This also marks the second DC Comics pilot that Adrianne Palicki has been in that crashed and burned, although the blame also falls on David E. Kelley, who himself has declared his unhappiness with how the pilot turned out.
Locke & Key
Probably the best pilot on this list, which is something we had to assume until it was aired in full at Comic-Con. The adaptation of Joe Hill’s phenomenal series was only aired the one time, and never on television. With some big name producers like Steven Spielberg having their hands on it at various points, not to mention the full support of Hill, this series should have been win-win for everybody. It’s hard not to imagine that if it had been made in the post-Walking Dead world, it might have had a much better chance.
The series had a ton of great material to draw from, and would have fit perfectly into the serialized nature of TV, but Fox execs didn’t go for it. The show seemed to get another boost when MTV took a look at it, but the pilot remained stagnant and fell off the radar, disappointing fans of the comic everywhere. While the pilot itself is hard to find, the released trailer gives us a tease of what might have been. Recent news has pointed to a possible trilogy of films based off the series, but further news hasn’t arrived yet.
Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency seemed like a perfect fit for television. The comic series itself was crafted using the television style of stand alone episodes that made it easy for anyone to pick up an issue and not feel like they missed anything, plus the espionage organization would have fit well with most fans of shows like Alias, Burn Notice, or even Chuck.
The pilot was produced by Mark Burnett (of Survivor fame) and was based pretty heavily on the first issue. A couple of new characters were also added to the series to give fans some continuing characters to follow, as the comic moved through a varied cast of characters with almost every new issue. The studio passed on the pilot, but hope still stuck with the show. That is until the pilot was leaked onto the internet, which basically killed it in the eyes of the WB. There were rumors of a new pilot being considered for the CW, but nothing developed.
Powers has long been in development, but only really began in earnest after AMC’s success with The Walking Dead. Series creator Brian Michael Bendis has been with the show every step of the way, and FX seems to be behind the pilot 100%. With some well known actors cast, the first pilot was produced… and then scrapped almost as soon as it was finished. Bendis was quick to announce that the show was not dead (Bendis provides regular updates on the series progress in the letters column of his occasionally monthly Powers Bureau comic series), but that they had to take another shot at the pilot with a whole new cast, script, and direction.
Recasts happen, but usually after a show is picked up with the intent of pushing a mainstream actor into the role to help the series gain an audience. To take it back to recasting for the pilot alone can mean either the show is in trouble or the network is so determined to make it work they are willing to spend the extra money it takes to redo the pilot from square one. While we may yet see the new pilot for Powers on FX, the first one has definitely been scrapped along with most of the cast, so chances of it getting out there for fans to see are very slim.
Amazon was yet another take on Wonder Woman, this time from the CW, who were seeing a resurgence of Smallville fame with their new series Arrow. Amazon was kept pretty secretive for a while, and had even attempted to throw fans off the trail with certain announcements, such as the main character being named Isis (which turned out to be a coded name for Diana Prince). The pilot was scrapped by the CW in much the same way that Powers was, in order for the CW to make the best pilot possible to ensure that the series will go forward.
Dealing with the negative feedback from David E. Kelley’s WW pilot, details are being kept pretty closely guarded in an effort to avoid the online persecution that can play such a large role in TV these days. If a show is being talked about negatively before the pilot even drops, much like Kelley’s WW, chances of it making it through the pilot stage are that much weaker, as a test audience will already have certain pre-conceived notions regarding the show. With the next attempt on Amazon in the works now, it remains to be seen what kind of information will be released, or even what kind of show will be developed, but fans are hoping this is one Wonder Woman pilot they will actually get a chance to see.
Another WB pilot that never took off was a story set during the early life of Dick Grayson, who would eventually become Robin, the Boy Wonder. This series would have followed “DJ” Grayson and his family as they toured around the country as part of Haly’s Circus, apparently as a juggling act, instead of a trapeze act as in the comics. The show was guaranteed to be Bat free, as Bruce Wayne was currently undergoing his reboot at the hands of Christopher Nolan and execs didn’t want any confusion between the two series.
The Graysons never made it to the pilot stage, and was nixed early on due to what we can assume is simply a lack of story potential, as well as the fact that it didn’t fit in with Batman’s movie goals. While most fans of Robin would be interested in seeing this character brought to life in living rooms every week, this part of his life didn’t hold much appeal compared to his Gotham days. While the WB was eager to replicate the success of Smallville, they were rightfully hesitant on bringing a story like this into production.
Wonder Woman & Batgirl
After the success of the Adam West led Batman show from the ‘60s, two pilots were created from the same team behind Batman that never saw the light of the day. The first was based off of the very popular Batgirl character that was created by DC for the show, and carried the same level of camp that made Batman so popular. The pilot has recently surfaced online and gives a glimpse at how the campy Batman universe could have expanded.
This was followed by the camp filled Wonder Woman pilot that was a far cry from the more successful Linda Carter led series that, to this day, maintains a special place in the hearts of fans. It’s incredible to look at this pilot (also recently released online) just to understand the influence the ’66 Batman series had on these early attempts at comic book adaptations.
These unaired shows are all great examples of TV pilots that have plumbed the world of comics in an attempt to bring these characters to the small screen. Unfortunately, not all of them are great examples of the best way to go about doing that. While there are a few notable instances of this actually working (Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Smallville, Arrow) there are clearly many more that never make it further than the initial pilot. While it’s a tragedy in some cases, like Global Frequency or Locke & Key, it is a godsend for others. Ah, the bittersweet world of superhero TV pilots.
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